No Promised Land

This chapter was published in Us and Them: A History of Intolerance in America, in 2006.
Jim Carnes
Grade Level

Like the Quakers, the early Mormons were feared and distrusted by their neighbors. When Mormons settled in Missouri in the 1830s, local residents found Mormon beliefs and practices not simply strange, but wrong. And the solution they sought was just as extreme as the banishment and death penalty laws against Massachusetts Quakers. The Mormons, the Missouri governor declared, must be removed—if not by expulsion, then by extermination.

Shortly after his 1831 arrival in Jackson County, Mo., the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith announced that he had discovered there the site of the Garden of Eden. But the life that Smith’s followers (Latter-day Saints, as they called themselves) found in their new home was a far cry from Paradise.

            The “frontier” state of Missouri had strong ties to the South, where most of its citizens originally came from. The Mormons, moving in from New England and Canada, brought a different way of life and point of view. Many of Missouri’s pioneers saw the newcomers as religious fanatics greedy for land and political power. The Mormons’ belief in a modern prophet and modern scripture (Smith’s Book of Mormon) made their more traditional Protestant neighbors suspicious. Further, the Mormons pooled their resources and tended to vote as an organized block. To the old settlers, both of these practices seemed like a direct challenge to frontier individualism.

            Since the Mormons opposed slavery, their influence on elections threatened Missouri’s status as a slave state. Rumors circulated that the Mormons planned to convert local slaves and Native Americans and enlist them in overthrowing the state government.

            The tension and ill will between Mormons and Missourians ran both ways. Mormon settlers established the first schools in northwest Missouri and sometimes looked down on their less cultivated neighbors as intellectually as well as morally inferior. They declared that they had a divine mission to establish God’s kingdom among the heathen. Mormon preachers warned that God was preparing to punish the “enemies” of the Church.

            Missourians interpreted these teachings as an open threat. In 1833, some took up arms and began harassing Mormon leaders. They tarred and feathered Bishop Edward Partridge. They wrecked the Church’s printing press and vandalized a Mormon store. Two Missourians and one Mormon died in skirmishes.

            It wasn’t long before all of the Latter-day Saints were driven out of Jackson County. Most of the refugees spent a brutal winter in makeshift camps and abandoned slave cabins along the Missouri River. Hunting and scavenging didn’t provide enough food. The weakened population fell prey to one illness after another.

           Joseph Smith recruited 200 Ohioans to help his people win their homes back, but he scrapped the plan when the Missouri governor refused to support it. The residents of neighboring Clay County offered the exiles a temporary refuge. Three years later, vigilante activity there made county leaders fear further violence, so they asked the Mormons to leave.

            Several prominent Missourians felt that the Mormons had been treated unfairly. They proposed the creation of a separate county where the Latter-day Saints could settle without interference. The state Legislature organized Caldwell County for this purpose in 1836, setting aside Daviess County, to the north, for displaced non–Mormons.

           For a while segregation preserved the peace. Many residents of surrounding counties assumed that the Mormons would stay within their new boundaries. But in 1838, when thousands of new Mormon arrivals overflowed Caldwell County, the old conflicts resumed.

            Another development that strained relations between Latter-day Saints and Missourians occurred inside the Mormon community. Some Mormons believed that standing their ground would require better discipline and unity. In June 1838, hard-liners formed an organization called the Danites to monitor and regulate the conduct of the Saints. Within a few months, the group comprised nearly 400 men. To the Missourians who saw them marching and drilling, the Danites seemed less like an internal police force than like a standing army.

            Throughout the summer, tensions continued to rise. As the Latter-day Saints sharpened their militant image, residents of the northwestern counties organized anti-Mormon campaigns. These ranged from public speeches and referendums to armed attacks. When a Daviess County politician proposed barring Mormons from voting in the August 6 election, a brawl erupted.

            Both sides gave in to a growing spirit of lawlessness. Mormons and Missourians poached each other’s livestock, burned each other’s corncribs and shot into the windows of each other’s homes. The pattern of rumor and raid and retaliation quickly became so widespread and familiar that no one could sort out how it all started. Both sides, in turn, asked Gov. Lilburn Boggs to send in the state militia.

            On October 23, a Methodist minister name Samuel Bogart decided not to wait for the governor’s decision. As captain of the Ray County militia, he called out 35 men to patrol the Caldwell County line and head off a suspected Mormon invasion. Armed and impressively outfitted in white coats and knife-belts, Bogart’s troops surprised Mormons in their houses and made them surrender their weapons.

            The following day, the militia captured two Mormon spies inside Ray County. Word shot through the Mormon territory that Bogart was threatening to execute his captives. At the same time, two dissident Mormons signed affidavits describing a secret army of Church members. From the statehouse to the humblest farmhouse, everyone waited for the tensions to explode.

            A Mormon brigade set out to rescue the spies at Crooked River on October 25. A battle erupted, leaving three Mormons and one Missourian dead. Reports of the conflict convinced state military commanders to mobilize their troops to subdue a rumored Mormon uprising. More significantly, the rumors prompted Gov. Boggs to act.

            The military order from the governor’s office was dated October 27, 1838. It stated, in part: “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace— their outrages are beyond all description.”

            More than likely, news of the Extermination Order did not reach the Missouri militia troops positioned outside the Mormon village of Haun’s Mill, in eastern Caldwell County. The 12 or so village families, along with more than that number living out of covered wagons, had decided to ignore Joseph Smith’s call for all Mormons to gather at the town of Far West, on the other side of the county. Instead, they organized their own small militia and braced themselves against the surrounding Missourians.

            The state troops stopped Mormons as they passed through the area on their way west. They turned some families back and demanded that others surrender their guns. The people of Haun’s Mill began planning what they would do in case of attack. After several days of the standoff, both sides signed a peace treaty in order to avoid another bloody engagement like Crooked River. The Mormons kept their guards on the lookout, but no one really expected further trouble.

            Late in the afternoon on October 30, three companies of mounted militiamen advanced through the trees to the edge of the Mormon settlement. It was a warm, autumn day, and children were playing on the creekbank. The grownups went about their chores. In front of one cabin, Rial Ames and Hyrum Abbott sat in straightback chairs, taking turns cutting each other’s hair. The front ranks of the state troops began walking out of the woods. From a distance of about 100 yards, Mr. Ames and Mr. Abbott mistook them for Mormon reinforcements.

            One of the Missouri officers fired a warning shot into the air. A long silence followed. As the troops approached, their red kerchiefs and black “war paint” told the people of Haun’s Mill that the truce was over. The state militia advanced under the orders “Shoot at everything wearing breeches, and shoot to kill.”

            Two hundred troops from three counties took part in the attack. Mormon men, women and children, startled from their activities, dashed for cover amid the thunder of guns and hooves. Several residents, including the local militia commander, waved their hats in appeal for mercy, but there was none. The onslaught drove many villagers south across the mill dam and into the woods. One woman heard 20 musket balls hit the log she was hiding behind.

            The blacksmith shop had always seemed like the sturdiest structure at Haun’s Mill and the easiest to defend. Now 15 men and three boys barricaded themselves inside it, armed with squirrel rifles and shotguns. The boys lay on the floor, under the big bellows that the blacksmith used to pump air into the forge. The long horizontal gaps in the log walls might have been good places to position firearms if the Mormons had been quick enough. But bullets kept spraying in from the outside. As the boys heard the men fall, they couldn’t tell which of them were their fathers. Finally, the Missourians closed in and jammed their gun barrels through the cracks.

            With half his fighters either dead or wounded, Mormon militia commander David Evans ordered the others to attempt an escape. For most, it amounted to a suicide run. An old man named Thomas McBride, who had fought under George Washington in the Revolutionary War, suffered a hit and handed over his rifle to the oncoming Missourians. One of these, ferry operator Jacob Rogers from Daviess County, aimed McBride’s own weapon at him and shot him through the chest. Then Rogers bent over the old man’s body and slashed it repeatedly with a corn-cutter.

            Missouri troops entered the blacksmith shop, which was now eerily silent. Their boots tracked through a pool of blood. Under the bellows, the men found Sardius Smith, 10 years old and trembling.

            Livingston County militiaman William Reynolds let Sardius plead for mercy before shooting the top of the boy’s head off, point-blank. “Nits will make lice,” Reynolds was later quoted as saying, “and if he had lived he would have become a Mormon.” Warren Smith, Sardius’ father, was one of the few Mormon men in the room still barely alive.

            In all, 18 residents of Haun’s Mill died. Fifteen more were wounded. Three state troopers suffered injuries. Before the Missourians left the village, some of them ransacked empty houses and wagons and even corpses. A number of wounded Mormons had their clothes torn off while pretending to be dead.

            The next morning, Amanda Smith walked back out of the woods. Her village, which just the day before had enjoyed the prospect of peace, was now littered with bodies. Amanda said a prayer as she entered the blacksmith shop, sickened at the fear of what she would find there. Warren, her husband, and Sardius, her son, lay motionless and cold. When Amanda cried out, she saw movement in a heap of corpses. From under the pile emerged her other son, Alma. All night, he had listened and waited.            

            No one knew whether the state militia would return. There wasn’t time for proper burials, so the survivors dropped the bodies of their friends and loved ones down an old well. They added a layer of dirt and straw to keep the vultures away.

            News of the governor’s Extermination Order traveled with the news of the massacre at Haun’s Mill. Both sides were anxious now for the conflict to end. Over the winter, military courts and county courts and the state legislature considered the fate of the Mormons in Missouri.

            Joseph Smith was among several Saints confined to prison on charges of riot and treason. By February 1839, at Smith’s urging, his followers had begun their exodus from the state. On April 16, Smith escaped captivity and joined the new settlement in Illinois. Anti-Mormon sentiment there would result five years later in his murder by a mob.

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Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    Identify members of the following groups: Missourians, Mormons/Latter-day Saints, Danites.
    Missourians: people who lived in Missouri, but were not Mormons; Mormons: believers of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon and made up of Latter-day Saints and Danites; Danites: a subgroup of the Mormons who were “hard-liners” and believed they needed to protect themselves in an organized fashion.
  2. Question
    Describe some of the originating tensions between the Missourians and the Mormons.
    Missourians found the Mormons’ beliefs in a modern-day prophet and scripture suspicious, didn’t like that they tended to vote as a block, thought they were greedy for land and political power and suspected that they wanted to end their status as a slave state. Mormons found the Missourians to be less cultivated, less intellectual and morally inferior.
  3. Question
    The explanations of the various skirmishes between the two sides provide a detailed account of what happened and when. What other purpose might the author have for giving such detailed explanations?
    The author may have been trying to highlight the back-and-forth and he said, she-said nature of the encounters. Each side felt the other side was to blame. Each side felt the other side “started it.” And both sides lost sight of how the escalations even began.
Reveal Answers
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